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Esther Stenstrom’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Esther Stenstrom arrived at Oak Ridge in 1943, after she and her husband were picked to work in the secret city. Strenstrom worked alongside her husband in the engineering department at the Y-12 Plant as a mechanical drawer. She recalls how rationing affected life for civilians living and working in Oak Ridge and how social events offered a respite for the community members.

Date of Interview:
December 27, 2013
Location of the Interview:


Alexandra Levy: We are here on December 27th in Florida. This is Alexandra Levy. I am with the Atomic Heritage Foundation. And we are here today with Esther Stenstrom. My first question for you is to please say your name and to spell it. 

Esther Stenstrom: My name is Esther L. Stenstrom, E-S-T-H-E-R, middle initial L, S-T-E-N-S-T-R-O-M. 

Levy: Where and when were you born?

Stenstrom: I was born in Crescent City, Florida, March 9, 1922. 

Levy: What kind of an education did you receive growing up?

Stenstrom: Growing up and before grades—twelfth grade education and then mechanical drawing for two years. 

Levy: How did you become involved with the Manhattan Project?

Stenstrom: My husband [Guy] “Sten” had been called into service and they asked him there if he would consider going to Oak Ridge to work instead of in the service and he said yes. And then they asked me would I be willing to go also and I said yes. And that is how we became—

Levy: Can you tell me a little bit about your husband and how you met?

Stenstrom: [Laughter] Yes, we met on my sixteenth birthday. And we were married three years later. 

Levy: So was he drafted? Was he a member—was he in the military? 

Stenstrom: He was—volunteered for service and they asked him at that point would he consider going to Oak Ridge instead. 

Levy: What year was that?

Stenstrom: 1940—actually, this was in ‘43. 

Levy: Do you remember when the World War II broke out? 

Stenstrom: Do I remember it? Yes. 

Levy: Do you remember Pearl Harbor or anything particular about any events from World War II especially vividly?

Stenstrom: Everybody was eager to get busy and get the war over with as soon as possible, whatever it took.

Levy: Why do you think your husband was asked to go to Oak Ridge? Did he have a college background? 

Stenstrom: He did not at that point. He was still getting credits and he did not have a degree at that time. 

Levy: What was he studying? 

Stenstrom: Engineering. And he later of course was, but at that point no. 

Levy: So what was your first job on the project?

Stenstrom: My first job? Mechanical drawing in the engineering department. 

Levy: So what did that entail?

Stenstrom: Oh, the drawing board, they brought into us an idea of what they wanted developed. We drew it on the drawing board, and then it was developed in the machine shop, put into practice. 

Levy: What kinds of things were you—were they developing? 

Stenstrom: Mechanical. 

Levy: But was it pipes? Was it—?

Stenstrom: No, it was not pipe. It was more like anything they brought in, but cones or whatever. 

Levy: When you moved to Oak Ridge, where were you coming from and how did you get there?

Stenstrom: We were coming from Florida. I do not remember how we—by car, I expect because yes, we traveled there by car. 

Levy: Do you remember first getting to Oak Ridge?

Stenstrom: First getting to Oak Ridge? Yes. He went ahead of me because there was no place to live in Oak Ridge. It was all claimed. Our first place that we lived was an officer’s barracks. And we would go through mud to the mess hall to get our meals, and then across town to our work place, Y-12. 

Levy: Can you tell me more about working at Y-12?

Stenstrom: Oh, it was a very secretive place. No one knew what they were doing in Oak Ridge except what we were told to do, draw up the item and have it manufactured. And next door, the manufacturing plant, no, very little was known about what we were doing at Oak Ridge. 

Levy: Did you know what your husband was working on? 

Stenstrom: Same thing. We were in the same engineering department. 

Levy: Was he in mechanical drawing as well?

Stenstrom: Yes. 

Levy: So did you work on projects together, or was it a very individual experience?

Stenstrom: Each person has their own project, but we worked together in the same office, yes. 

Levy: Do you remember any specific projects that you worked on? 

Stenstrom: No. 

Levy: Can you talk about getting to Y-12 every day? Did you have to go through security? 

Stenstrom: Oh yes, very, very tight security. Also we went to school while they were getting us secured, and that was mechanical drawing as well. And we finally got a five badge, which was the highest we could go anywhere on the area. We did not know enough to ask anything, not really, but we could ask if we wanted to because we had the highest clearance there was. 

Levy: Did you go anywhere else at Y-12, or did you mostly stay in the mechanical drawing area?

Stenstrom: We stayed in Y-12 all the time we were there.

Levy: So you did not see any of the other factories in Oak Ridge, like the K-25 plant?

Stenstrom: Could have, but we did not know what to ask for.

Levy: Did you know why you ended up in mechanical drawing?

Stenstrom: Because I had had experience in schooling in that. 

Levy: Did you enjoy working in that department?

Stenstrom: Yes, yes, very much, very congenial office, but very little knowledge also [laughter]. 

Levy: What was your schedule like? How many hours a day did you work?

Stenstrom: Whenever we were asked to, but at least forty-five or fifty a week. 

Levy: Did you have weekends off?

Stenstrom: Sometimes, yes. 

Levy: Did you know anyone who worked outside of the mechanical drawing section?

Stenstrom: No, it was always in mechanical drawing. 

Levy: Did you make friends with anyone else outside of that department?

Stenstrom: Outside of that department? No, you never had occasion to go outside of that department except recreation that we would spend with each other on Fridays, that was about the only recreation we had. Joking about what we were doing in Oak Ridge, and they were hilarious some of the things they came up with. And one gentleman at one of the parties said, “Well, I think we are splitting the atom.” [Laughter] At that point General Groves said, “There’ll be no more jokes about what we’re doing in Oak Ridge.”

Levy: He issued a directive, an order stating that?

Stenstrom: He made an order through Oak Ridge Journal stating that, yes. 

Levy: What else did people think was being done?

Stenstrom: Oh, hilarious jokes. It was all a joke at that time. 

Levy: Did you have any idea what you were working on? 

Stenstrom: No, absolutely not. 

Levy: Did it bother you that you did not know what you were working on?

Stenstrom: No. 

Levy: Because it was for the war? Did you know it was for the war?

Stenstrom: Because it was war and we wanted to get the war over.

Levy: Did you have any family or friends who were serving in the military overseas?

Stenstrom: Yes. I had a brother at that time serving in Germany, pilot. 

Levy: Did you write letters to your family? Could you tell them where you were?

Stenstrom: We did not write letters. When we had occasion to write, but there was no need to write. It was very secretive. 

Levy: What kind of training did they give you about the secrecy?

Stenstrom: About what?

Levy: The secrecy. 

Stenstrom: We were impressed, I will say that, very impressed about secretive of the place. 

Levy: Do you remember there being billboards around Oak Ridge telling people to be quiet about what they were working on? 

Stenstrom: Not only in Oak Ridge, but everywhere, it was top secret. 

Levy: So did you know that there were other factories at Oak Ridge, or did you just think it was Y-12?

Stenstrom: Oh, you are talking about Oak Ridge, we knew there were other areas, yes. But we had no occasion to go there to the other areas in Oak Ridge.

Levy: How did the fact that there was so much secrecy affect your daily life?

Stenstrom: We were restricted going in and out of the area. We had no stores initially on the area. There was one gas station in all of Oak Ridge. And there was no grocery stores, drugstores, or anything like that. So you waited in line for an hour or two to get your gas to go to work. Knoxville was quite a few miles away so you went there for your groceries when you really needed provisions.

Levy: How did you get around? Did you have a car?

Stenstrom: Yes, we had our car.

Levy: So was it a pain to have to wait in line for gas like that?

Stenstrom: I did not do it, my husband did. But I am sure it was. 

Levy: What about the food rationing and the gas rationing? How did that impact your life?

Stenstrom: You might wait an hour or so to get your gas. And then there might not be enough when you got there to [laughter]. But there was a way provided for us to get to work. 

Levy: Did you eat at Y-12 at the—was there a mess hall that you would eat at?

Stenstrom: There was a mess hall approximately two blocks away that we went through mud to get our meals. At work we would take a sandwich. 

Levy: Were you able to eat fairly well at Oak Ridge or did you—were you not able to get many foods?

Stenstrom: No, everything was rationed and so it was no hardship, really. We did not consider it a hardship because we wanted the war over. 

Levy: Can you talk a little bit about the housing? Where did you and your husband live?

Stenstrom: Yes, and actually we lived in officer’s barracks. And we were on the list for a home, a house, and that was a prefab because they were putting them up pretty fast. And so we were initially, after waiting our turn, we were issues a house and it was a two bedroom, one bath, and we were glad to get that. We called it our “Taj Mahal” when we got ours. 

Levy: So it was a pretty nice house compared to what you could have lived in?

Stenstrom: If I would compare it to today, no. Then, we were very proud to get the house, very happy to get it. 

Levy: Now did you say that you had a daughter when you were in Oak Ridge?

Stenstrom: Yes. She was born before we left Oak Ridge, but she was born in Oak Ridge. And when General Groves told us there would be no more joking about what we were doing in Oak Ridge, he says, “We are making babies to the tune of ninety to a hundred a month and that is what we are doing in Oak Ridge.” [Laughter] So that was enough said. 

Levy: So what year was your daughter born?

Stenstrom: ‘45, 1945.

Levy: Was the medical care that you received there pretty good?

Stenstrom: For military, yes, for civilians, no. [laughter]

Levy: Were you eligible for a larger house once you had a child or not?

Stenstrom: We had a two bedrooms already and that was enough. 

Levy: Did you have a lawn or anything? 

Stenstrom: A lawn? We had a garden. 

Levy: So did all the houses in your neighborhood sort of look alike?

Stenstrom: Look alike, ticky-tack, yes. But we did not think about that then. 

Levy: Did you do anything to make your house look a little more unique?

Stenstrom: As much as possible. Not all things were available during the war as they are now. And yes, as much as we could, curtains and that, yes. 

Levy: So how often did you go to Knoxville? 

Stenstrom: When we had to get provisions like food, not very often. I would say once a month. 

Levy: Did you like going to Knoxville?

Stenstrom: It was a need more than a pleasure. 

Levy: Were the people in Knoxville friendly? Because some people have—some veterans have told us that the people in Knoxville resented the Oak Ridgers. 

Stenstrom: We were not in Knoxville that much. We were mostly in Oak Ridge. And everybody was there for the same purpose, to get the war over whatever we were doing.

Levy: So what did you and your friends do in your spare time for recreation?

Stenstrom: On Friday night generally if work permitted we would meet and socialize and tell jokes about what we were doing in Oak Ridge. [laughter]

Levy: Did you go to any dances or do any sports?

Stenstrom: There was no such then, very little if any. We did go to church on Sunday and that is about the extent of it. 

Levy: Do you remember, did you ever go to the Chapel on the Hill?

Stenstrom: Yes I did. 

Levy: Can you talk a little bit about what that was like?

Stenstrom: Except it was a place to go to church. 

Levy: Was it a nice building inside?

Stenstrom: Mmm, not especially, but nice enough, yes. 

Levy: So were you friendly with other people who worked in Oak Ridge? 

Stenstrom: Yes. We were all in it together, and yes. 

Levy: Were you mostly friendly with other people who worked in mechanical drawing or did you have friends who worked outside of that, too?

Stenstrom: We did not go outside so much, but plenty people in our department and process engineering that we were friendly with, yes. 

Levy: Were there a lot of couples who worked in Oak Ridge together, like you guys did?

Stenstrom: Not a lot. As far as I know, we were the only couple that were able to work together. 

Levy: Yes, I have never heard of a couple working in the same department before. 

Stenstrom: Right. 

Levy: So did you enjoy working alongside your husband?

Stenstrom: We were an employee, same as the rest were, and it was a work to do. And no particular socializing, except we usually had lunch together. 

Levy: Did you continue to work once you got pregnant?

Stenstrom: Yes, up until almost time for the baby to be born, yes. 

Levy: Did you go back to work after the baby?

Stenstrom: No, I did not. 

Levy: Was it easy to find the stuff that you needed for the baby, like a crib or diapers? Or was that difficult because of the war?

Stenstrom: That is where I was when I heard about the end of the war or the bomb being—I was in Knoxville baby shopping. 

Levy: Can you talk about how you heard about the bomb being dropped?

Stenstrom: Yes. My mother was with me and we were shopping for the baby. And it was all over the streets of Knoxville that—and so we listened closely, and that is what had happened. They had dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. 

Levy: So did you find out then that that is what Oak Ridge had been working on?

Stenstrom: Pretty soon, yes, pretty soon, because it was on the news then, because the word was out. 

Levy: Were you surprised?

Stenstrom: Yes but we knew what we were doing was so very secretive we were not that surprised, yes. We did not know what we were doing, but to be surprised, no. 

Levy: What did you think or feel when you found out that the bomb had been dropped on Japan?

Stenstrom: All the streets were in uproar because this was the beginning of the end of the war and everybody was hilariously happy.

Levy: Do you remember when V-J Day happened, when Japan surrendered? Was there a similar outpouring on the streets?

Stenstrom: I remember, but I cannot say anything specific because I was a new mother then and I was not out on the streets. 

Levy: So had your baby been born already when the bomb was dropped? 

Stenstrom: No, actually it was before she was born but she was born very soon after. 

Levy: So your mother was able to come and visit you when you were pregnant?

Stenstrom: Yes, not really in Oak Ridge, but we did visit because we would go into Knoxville. 

Levy: So your mother was able—she could not really get to Oak Ridge?

Stenstrom: She had to get special clearance to come in and visit. 

Levy: Was that difficult to get?

Stenstrom: Yes and no, it was temporary each time.

Levy: Where did—where was she living at the time? 

Stenstrom: Knoxville.

Levy: Oh, so she was in Knoxville. 

Stenstrom: Yes. 

Levy: Had she moved up there when you moved to Oak Ridge or was that—?

Stenstrom: My father also worked in Oak Ridge, but not as we did. He was there for construction some after but not an ongoing basis, as we were. 

Levy: So was he also involved then in the Manhattan Project construction?

Stenstrom: Construction, but that is all. 

Levy: That is it. How did he get that job?

Stenstrom: I do not know. 

Levy: So that was nice then, to have your parents close by?

Stenstrom: Yes, yes. 

Levy: Was your mother able to help when the baby was born then?

Stenstrom: No, Oak Ridge was separate from the outside and it was a military-type hospital. And the care was not what you would want, but it is what you got, and we were glad to get that. [Laughter]

Levy: What role did patriotism and wanting to win the war as quickly as possible play in motivating you and your colleagues?

Stenstrom: I am sorry, I do not understand. 

Levy: Wanting to win the war quickly, was that something that you thought about a lot even without knowing what you were working on? 

Stenstrom: Yes, we were very anxious for the war to be over. And we did what we were asked to do as far as work was concerned.

Levy: Did you have any contact with General Groves while you were at Oak Ridge?

Stenstrom: I had met General Grovers but I did not socialize with General Groves. But he commanded that we not joke anymore about what we were doing in Oak Ridge, and that was very evident.

Levy: When did you meet him?

Stenstrom: I cannot give you the date; it was in Oak Ridge.

Levy: What was the circumstance? Was he in the factory?

Stenstrom: He was in our department occasionally. I would say more than once, two or three times. But everybody was in there to get the job done.

Levy: Did you know he was the head of the project?

Stenstrom: No, I did not know. I knew he had—he was very instrumental in the—setting it, but I did not know the extent, no. 

Levy: Do you remember anything particular about him? I mean, he was a big man.

Stenstrom: No, you did not know him that all personally. 

Levy: He was a pretty big man so he stood out. Do you remember that?

Stenstrom: Yes. I would say larger than average, yes. 

Levy: Did you ever meet any of the other top scientists or personnel?

Stenstrom: They would come into our office, but we had a job to do and we were not there to socialize. If it was necessary, absolutely, to answer questions. 

Levy: So the name of your office, you said, was the process improvement section?

Stenstrom: Yes, engineering. 

Levy: So you were trying to help—can you just explain it a little bit more?

Stenstrom: When they had a need in manufacturing, uranium in particular, and something would work better, they came to us to develop that item, whatever it happened to be. And we would draw it up and it was made into manufacturing. 

Levy: And you said that this was where the original Oak Ridge Boys Quartet was formed?

Stenstrom: The mechanical side was next door to us, manufacturing. And at noon time, the original Oak Ridge Boys would practice next door. And of course we would take our sandwiches and go outside and our hot coffee or whatever and listen to them every chance we got. Yes, the original Oak Ridge Quartet.

Levy: So that must have been a nice little break?

Stenstrom: It was very nice, very nice. 

Levy: And you said that you had a small vegetable garden at your house?

Stenstrom: Yes, what we called a Victory Garden. And it produced—almost would pop out of the ground before you got the seeds covered, it was that fertile. And we had a very nice—and shared with neighbors our vegetables. 

Levy: So you were able to have a lot of fresh vegetables that way?

Stenstrom: Yes, very nice. Also, we went out of the area to get beef because that was rationed, sugar was rationed, gasoline, anything. And so we had to go off of the area to get our meats. 

Levy: So that is when you would go to Knoxville?

Stenstrom: Between our house and Knoxville, yes, in the country. 

Levy: So can you talk a little bit about how you feel about your role in working on the Manhattan Project?

Stenstrom: I am very thankful for having worked there because it ended the war so much sooner. And the threat would have been ours had we not come up with the bomb as soon as we did. 

Levy: And did your husband feel the same way?

Stenstrom: Yes, yes, we were very thankful for having worked in Oak Ridge.

Levy: So after the war was over, what did you and your husband do? Did you stay in Oak Ridge?

Stenstrom: We stayed for a while and continued to work. But we wanted to come home. And so in the spring we came home. 

Levy: To Florida?

Stenstrom: Yes, yes, we were both from Florida.

Levy: So did your work with the Manhattan Project affect your—continue to affect your life after it was over?

Stenstrom: We worked there after the bomb was dropped after the war was over, yes, for a while. 

Levy: In terms of your career and your husband’s career, did it affect what you ended up doing?

Stenstrom: He remained a civil engineer for the rest of his life. 

Levy: That is great. 

Stenstrom: A professional engineer with discipline in civil, yes. 

Copyright 2014 The Atomic Heritage Foundation. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the Atomic Heritage Foundation.